Originally published: ABC News
A trial of genetically modified bananas will begin south of Darwin in a few months after a five-year trial received approval from the gene technology regulator.
Two hundred modified lines of Cavendish bananas will be grown over 6 hectares in the Litchfield region in the hope of developing a variety resistant to Panama Tropical Race 4.
The destructive fungal disease is now commonplace in the Northern Territory after being found in Darwin's rural area in 1997.
Professor James Dale, from the Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), is leading the banana research program.
He said a similar trial had been underway in the Top End a few years ago, but that came to an abrupt halt when the plants were removed under the Banana Freckle Eradication program.
"It probably took out 12 months of results for us but it wasn't devastating," he said.
He said the earlier trial results had been "pretty exciting”.
"The outcome of that trial was that we found four lines of Cavendish Grand Nain which had either complete or very high levels of resistance," Professor Dale said.
"We're now taking those four lines that look very promising and trialling a much larger number of plants over a much bigger area.
"We're also bringing up new lines with the same gene in to see if we can get even better resistance."
Plants modified in Brisbane university lab
Professor Dale said 50 plants of each of the four previous lines would be planted.
"And for the new lines we're going to plant between 15 and 20 plants per line," he said.
The plants are being readied in laboratories at QUT.
"We do the modification, or transformation as we call it, in our labs in Brisbane," Professor Dale said.
"It's done all in vitro, so it's tissue culture, and we multiply them and then we take them up to the Northern Territory.
"They're still in tissue culture when we take them out of Queensland.”
Crops will be closely monitored
Once the trial is underway at an undisclosed site south of Darwin, researchers will wait until the Panama disease finds its way naturally from the soil into the crop.
The crop will be assessed for the normal banana crop characteristics such as yield and the number of fingers and hands.
"We'll be recording when the first symptoms appear, assessing the level of disease, when they are being affected, and we'll also do the molecular diagnostics to demonstrate that the symptoms we are seeing are actually caused by the Tropical Race 4," Professor Dale said.
While there are no genetically modified bananas being grown commercially in Australia, Professor Dale said that may change if Panama disease became widespread.
"If the disease becomes really serious in Queensland then there would be a real possibility to take our bananas through to deregulation in Australia," he said.